They are a vanload of pilgrims, climbing through the swirling snow of a late December night from the Denver airport up toward ski country – a family from Missouri, another from North Carolina, a couple of college kids headed home for the holidays. And the Guitar Man.
He wears jeans and a faded leather jacket. His luggage consists of a duffel bag and a battered guitar case – a six-stringed Martin or Gibson probably, wood worn bare by the brushing wings of a million notes and chords. He’s in his late twenties and he has a nice smile. But he has a road-weary look about him, sort of like his guitar case.
The van driver is a jolly sort who keeps up a running conversation with his passengers, partly to relieve the boredom of the trip he makes up and down I-70 so many times that every boulder, every snow-crusted pine is etched in his subconscious; but also because he’s genuinely interested in people and he full of the holiday spirit. He’s got Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops playing “Good King Wenceslas” on the stereo. And he wants to know who the pilgrims are and where they’re from. That’s how they get to know that they’re Missourians and Carolinians and college students, trading names and places and bits of personal background here in the warm temporary intimacy of a rubber-tired cocoon.
The last to speak is the Guitar Man, who says he’s a folksinger. He’s been traveling the East, playing coffee houses and college campuses and small bars, trying to figure out if he can make a living with his music. He’s soft-spoken and engagingly modest and the rest of the passengers can hear the music in his voice – a traveling troubadour, a man who tells stories in song. And he has a story of his own.
There’s a lady in Frisco, a little mountain town just off the interstate. A rather special lady, or at least she used to be. She and the Guitar Man were more than friends once upon a time not loo long ago, until the music took hold and pulled him out on the road. The Lady in Frisco begged him not to go, but it was something he just had to do. The music was strong inside him – stronger, he thought, than love. So he went, hoping that maybe love would wait. During these long months while he was out there in the coffee houses and bars, the Guitar Man and the Lady in Frisco haven’t spoken or written, not once. That was the way she wanted it.
Now, on this snowy night just before Christmas, the Guitar Man is headed back to Frisco, back to the tiny apartment where the Lady lives, carrying his duffel bag and his guitar and his heart. The Lady in Frisco doesn’t know he’s coming. And he doesn’t know what he’ll find when he gets there. Maybe there’s someone else. Maybe she’s so hurt and disappointed, maybe she thinks he’s so unreliable, she doesn’t want to see him any more. She may not let him in. But he’s come all this way to try.
The Guitar Man’s fellow pilgrims are all but struck dumb y his bittersweet story and by the anticipation of what’s to come. The Guitar Man will be the first passenger to disembark, and all of the others will get to see if the Lady in Frisco turns him away. If she does, he’ll ride on to the next town and find a place to crash for the night.
The van climbs on, past the meadow where the buffalo herd hunkers against the frigid night, past the rocks where the big-horn sheep scramble by day, up and over the Continental Divide. The driver and the pilgrims are quiet, lost in their thoughts, considering the Continental Divide of the heart where east meets west and sometimes the altitude and the bitter wind are too much, where even the most resolute traveler has to turn back and seek shelter elsewhere.
On the stereo, the joyous strings of the Boston Pops ring out, “O Come All Ye Faithful.” But the pilgrims hear another song of another season: Ramblin’ Man, why don’t you settle down; Boston ain’t your kind of town; There ain’t no gold and there ain’t nobody like me.
And then they’re in Frisco and the van is crunching along a back street, pulling up in front of a row of one-story apartments. Inside the van, you can hear a pin drop. The Guitar Man climbs out. “Good luck,” the driver says. The Guitar man smiles, closes the door behind him, hoists his duffel bag and guitar case, and climbs the steps. There’s a Christmas tree in the window, all decorated with colored lights and tinsel. But for the pilgrims in the van, their faces pressed to the windows, it won’t be Christmas unless…
The Guitar Man knocks. The door opens, the rectangle of light framing a young woman in a bathrobe. The folks in the van can’t see her face very well, but they can imagine surprise, shock, maybe even anger. Or maybe nothing. That would be the worse. “Come on lady,” somebody in the van says softly, “let him in.” But they stand there in the light for a long moment, the Guitar Man and the Lady from Frisco, oblivious to the cold, the rest of their lives hanging in the balance.
Then she steps back from the door, making room for him. The Guitar Man turns and gives the van folks a thumb’s up and then he enters and closes the door behind him. In the van, they’re cheering and crying.
The pilgrims move on into the night, now lovely and silent and at peace with itself, all of them touched in some deep place of the soul they had forgotten was there.